Ansel Lee and his postcard at the third ATT Conference of States Parties in 2017.

“Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful world, beautiful people” is slowly becoming Bob Marley’s “Many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die” in Jamaica. The enveloping warmth of the ever-present sunshine, the breathtaking sunsets caressing the Caribbean sea and the vibrant music scenes are now shrouded by growing armed violence facilitated by small arms proliferation, drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

These are the words Ansel Lee, Jamaican activist and community organizer, wrote in a postcard delivered to over 300 delegates and governmental officials at the third ATT Conference of States Parties, held on 11-15 September 2017. Tragically, they still ring true one year later.

During the Third Review Conference of the UN Program of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA) held on 18-29 June, I had the opportunity to speak with Ansel and his colleagues from the Kingston and St Andrew Action Forum (KSAAF). Bringing together local groups of community activists under the slogan “better communities, better Jamaica”, KSAAF works to combat armed violence in some of the most dangerous areas in Jamaica through social interventions including awareness raising, education and reintegration programs.

I was well aware that Jamaica, despite it’s beauty, rich culture and great music, has its fair share of challenges. But this meeting shone a light on an issue I had not fully considered – that of gun violence. Endemic particularly to communities with little resources and economic mobility such as West Kingston, gang violence and the availability of arms have been claiming lives for decades.

In many of these communities, possessing a gun means power, respect, and pride to its owner. There are little to no alternatives for acquiring status and economic stability. This is how young men, many close in age to myself, get drawn into a cycle of gang violence, involving drugs, arms and turf wars. The link between the drug and arms trade is clearly visible on the streets of West Kingston, most recently with arms flowing in from Haiti in exchange for Jamaican marijuana.

KSAAF members wearing orange to remember victims of gun violence on 22 June, 2018, at the UN headquarters in NYC.

To address this issue, the Jamaican government has implemented ‘Zones of Special Operations’, a program which aims to contain crime while safeguarding the human rights of residents and promoting community development. Through this programme, areas affected by high levels of armed violence are protected by military forces for short periods of time. Nevertheless, the gangs, well organized and highly skilled, are often able to cleverly avoid authorities while using “5 guns to commit 100 or more murders.”

The numbers are troubling. Police statistics show that guns were used to commit 90% of the murders recorded since the start of 2018. According to a working paper submitted by the Jamaica Permanent Mission to the UN before the UNPoA conference last month, 274 active gangs in Jamaica are believed to be involved in up to 80% of all major crimes. Many of these gangs operate transnationally, with networks supporting “small-scale smuggling operations with Jamaicans sending drugs to the U.S., Canada and the U.K., and importing arms mostly from the U.S. and Haiti.”

A member of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) walks with a toddler in the community of Denham Town in Western Kingston. Prime Minister, Hon. Andrew Holness on October 17, 2017 declared Denham Town the second Zone of Special Operations under the Law Reform (Zones of Special Operations) (Special Security and Community Development Measures) Act. Photo: Jamaica Information Service Photographer

Sustained efforts are being made, often to the detriment and safety of KSAAF members, to prevent and reduce these numbers. KSAAF, who regularly work in collaboration with government, adopt a hands-on approach in the battle against gun violence. This includes mediation between gangs and direct dialogue with gang members to de-escalate the risks of violence and disengage them from their gangs. KSAAF also offers a support system to former gang members, including social support, security and skills trainings/workshops to enable these individuals to provide for themselves through other means.

Another striking issue mentioned by the members of KSAAF is that well-established NGOs often  arrive in Jamaica with pre-established agendas and top-down solutions, disregarding the needs and wants of the local organizations and communities. The programs and trainings they offer are frequently in skills and careers unappealing  to the youth, creating little incentive for them to disengage from their gang associations.

Grassroots work such as that of KSAAF, alongside government policies like the Zones of Special Operations, can offer a long-term solution to Jamaica’s gun violence challenges. More attention and funding must be diverted to the efforts of organizations like KSAAF globally. Hearing the passionate stories of their honest and dangerous work was eye-opening and moving, and reminded me of similar situations of cyclical gang violence in other parts of the world including in places like Chicago, USA or Colima, Mexico.